People often ask me about what working in Japan is like. I always hesitate when answering questions like that, because I can only talk about my own experiences, and the experiences of people I know, which is an awfully tiny slice of the Japanese job market. In the first place, I don’t have any friends who work skyscraper white collar jobs in downtown Tokyo, and for some reason that’s what everyone seems to be interested in.
When I was looking for a job, I thought I was putting enough effort into it, but in retrospect and hearing the stories of my friends, I was vastly underestimating the issue. In the end I got a job at an anime production company. Almost all of the production staff are over-qualified for the job, as the job requires basically nothing save for common sense and the ability to communicate in Japanese. There are people from elite universities, people with engineering degrees, who are only doing this because they love anime, they wanted an easy and fun job, or they just failed to find anything better.
If you don’t mind managing animators and having to be in the studio until late night, it’s hard to find any easier job. (Alas, I mind both.) There are much worse options. There are the so-called “black” corporations – companies where overworking people is the standard, where going nuts from the stress is a common thing and every now and then someone gets hospitalized on the verge of the notorious karoshi (death from overwork). Considering such options, I must admit that landing a job at an anime studio was still pretty lucky.
The job market is constantly changing too. While the mainstream stays the good old model of membership-based employment, it’s losing favor with smaller companies and startups who need something more flexible and easier to enforce. On the one hand, this is good news for foreigners trying to find jobs in Japan, since the old model doesn’t have space for any irregularities. On the other hand, it also means that the regular benefits of “proper employees” won’t (all) apply to them and their contracts will still allow for plenty of abuse on the employer’s end. I’m not a proper employee either (nor are any of my coworkers), but an individual contractor, meaning legally they’re “outsourcing” the job to me instead of hiring me. Much less responsibility for the employer, and still lots of power over us due to the hilariously vague text of the contract.
At my next job, however, I’ll be a proper employee, working fixed hours in a well-defined role. That is, if I get my visa, which is always an exciting affair. Sure, bigger (and international) companies may hire a lawyer to handle the procedures for you, but for smaller companies it’s often not worth the investment. Unless you’re a highly qualified person (for which the requirements are pretty steep), you’ll have to spend time figuring out what and how you’re supposed to fill in to get the working permit.
Reading news about foreigners’ employment chances in Japan, I think I’m seeing another problem, namely that people seem to be expecting miracles. The EU aside, where would you even get a job you’re not qualified for, have no experience in and don’t even speak the local language? That just appears silly to me. You don’t know how to write motivation letters or “self-PR”? Well, better get learning then.
Being a bit more flexible when it comes to formal manners during job interviews definitely helps, since even Japanese have to learn that stuff from books and from trial and error – and foreigners raised with the idea that employers want skill and experience might have trouble understanding why are there such rigid rules about formality here.
It doesn’t help either that many companies still won’t accept you if they’ve got a choice. Even after passing a written exam and two-three interviews in Japanese, they’ll still keep assuming that you don’t know Japanese and will have trouble fitting in, or that you’ll leave the company in three months to go home or find another job (and of course they’re not gonna believe you if you tell them you’re staying). I got dropped out at the final interviews at multiple companies, and I can’t help but feel that it was because they were unwilling to take the “risk” of employing a white man.
My naive idea is that it’s all right for companies to set the same (not more, not less) requirements for foreigners as to locals. Hiring someone less suited just because they’re foreigners is just as unfair as kicking someone out just because they’re foreigners. And if companies demand that foreigners be more Japanese than the Japanese themselves, don’t be surprised if they go black instead.
I’ve only ever worked in Japan, and even in Japan, at a pretty out-of-ordinary company, but I feel that working here can still be enjoyable and fulfilling. In the end it all comes down to corporate culture and environment, and how well you can fit in with your co-workers. That is, if you can find a job in the first place.